The first 6th…

Today it was 21 degrees C and, truth be told, I was definitely feeling a little colder than usual.

It has been a long day and I’m lying on my bed listening to the rain drop off my open window onto the pathway below. While not a complete mythical being with horns and a pot of gold to guard, rain has been a rarity on this trip. Temperatures yesterday topped the charts of “things that are going to make me loose weight on this trip” as my body continues its endless campaign to slowly drain all the fluids from my body at even the slightest thought of exercise.

The beach yesterday (Saturday) was packed as temperatures hit way above 30!

I’m currently based in the Township of Chesterville which was originally built in the time of apartheid as a place for working class Black families to be while the adults went and earned money in the local city of Durban. Even though Apartheid ended in 1994— a year after I was born — communities around these parts (and, from what I am told, the rest of SA) are still very much divided into areas based on ethnicity.

From talking to local experts, I am one of only 2 white males out of the population of around 16,000 and one of 4 white people (the two females are also from my group). The rest of the population is made up of black families and they’ve been really welcoming, accepting us as family with open arms.

“Welcome back my child!” Exclaims the host mum of two of the other members of my group as she wraps me in a tight bear-hug. She’s known to the group simply as “Gogo” which is the familiar term for Granny in the local area. Her house is a 4 room in the center of Chesterville and nearly always occupied by the smiling, loving woman who, along with Chris (mine and Tseko’s host Dad) and Mama Xoli (pronounced with a click at the start), make up the team that are looking after us here over the next 10 weeks.

I’ve been here for 9 days (as of the Sunday when I’m writing this) and I’m still an object of fascination for the local populace.

“What you’ve got to realise is that once you’ve spent maybe 48hours in the Township,” Our Team co-ordinator Glen told me, sat on plastic chairs with metal frames at training; “You’ve probably spent more time in one than most of the population not residing there.”

It seems as though, while policy and law are changing in SA, attitudes still remain that townships are dangerous places to be. Although I cannot attest to the nightlife of the place (organisation restrictions mean that we have to be back at our host homes when it gets dark), what I can tell you is that I have yet to feel in any sort of danger while I’m here.

A typical roadside shop. Most of the shops in Chesterville reside in shipping containers such as this one.

As at least partially a result of these factors, I’ve become somewhat of a novelty. Walking down the street to the schools in which I am working, I have these sudden realisations that I am being watched. Usually, it’s groups of kids in their front garden who will actively stop what they’re doing to either to watch from afar or actively shout various greetings at me. Some even run straight up to me and go for high fives, fist bumps and various forms of handshakes.

Attending church as a three member party (having lost members of the group to illness and various states of readiness), I became very aware that I was the only white person in the room. It was a fact that became VERY clear in the part of the service where you greet the people around you. I had just shaken the hand of a mother who was sat in the row behind me when her son eagerly stepped into view with one of the widest grins I have ever seen. This grin remained even after I greeted him in both English and Zulu. He just stood there transfixed as if my presence had cast a spell that had seen him rooted to the spot with that never ending grin still very much a part of his expression.

I would find that he wasn’t the only one eager to say hello to the white newcomer in their midst. Tseko would later recall how church members would be shaking hands with him and Lerato, as only a passing motion to get through to me (On reflection, they were sometimes skipped out entirely by people reaching over to shake my hand, something I only noted afterwards!)

Being watched! Walking through Chesterville often grants me a funny look from some of the locals!

There’s a great exchange in the film Mr Pip in which two of the main characters talk about ethnicity, I wanted to share it with you as it very much applies to my current situation.

Daniel: What's it like to be white?
Mr. Watts: You mean what's it like to be white, or what's it like to be white here?
Matilda Naimo: Both.
Mr. Watts: A bit like what the last mammoth must have felt, I suppose. It's lonely, at times. I don't know. What's it like being black?
Daniel: Normal.
Matilda Naimo: We only feel black around white people.
Mr. Watts: Yes, well, I'd say the same is true for me.

Having been bought up in a mostly white suburb in the UK, I’d never really felt what it meant to be white as much as I do here. It’s a complicated feeling and one I don’t feel I can do justice at the moment until I’ve spent some more time thinking about it. I’ll get back to you over the next couple of posts. I feel like I stand out, that I’m on show all the time.

I often have motorists shouting at me, referring to me as “Mlungo” out of their cars. I’m reliably informed that they’re effectively saying “Hey, white man!” Or, if it’s not directed at me, “Hey look, there’s a white man!” From my limited experience here, it points towards the fact that seeing a white person on the streets of Chesterville is a rarity. With the rate that news travels in the closely knit community, I would guess that there were a lot of people that knew about me before they actually saw me!

Next week signifies the start of my time in the classroom! Teaching is one of those careers that people have said I’d be good at and I’ve only ever semi-believed them.

No time like the present I guess! Wish me luck!

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